Old photographs, and the “what might have been” of the nativist imagination

by Chris Bertram on November 11, 2021

Lately, I find I’ve been spending more and more time looking at Facebook groups of old photographs of Bristol, the city where I live. I particularly enjoy the aerial photographs of the interwar period, often colorized. There are lots of reasons for this: I like photographs, I like history, I like cities. But it isn’t just Bristol, I can also spend hours on the Shorpy site, sometimes going to Google Street View for a modern take, and I own several books comparing the Parises of Marville and Atget and the New York of Berenice Abbott to the same scenes today, as well as multiple volumes of Reece Winstone’s collection of historic Bristol pictures. So what’s the attraction, indeed the compulsion? What is drawing me and others to these scenes? And does this attraction also have a problematic side to it?

One common response to the images is a sense of thwarted possibility. You see a functioning, bustling city, full of life, and full of beatiful surviving buildings, densely packed. The train is everywhere, with bridges, tracks, sidings, sheds to match. Sometimes a locomotive is in view. The rail infrastructure criss-crosses with the water, canal and harbours. Factories with their chimneys sit adjacent to medieval churches with their towers and spires. The technology often looks amazing, as with the Ashton Avenue Bridge (1905)(covered for photoblogging a while back), which in its day was a double-decker swing structure, with road on the top deck and rail running below. These days it has but one functioning level – the old rail deck is for pedestrians and cyclists – and it hasn’t swung since 1951. The “then” pictures give us the romance of industrial modernity combined with the charm of the medieval.

Since, whole districts of terraced housing have gone, churches bombed or demolished, roads cut and widened at the expense of shops and dwellings. The sense of order present in pre-war photographs is accentuated by the patriotic but pointless wartime removal of iron railings, never replaced. The pictures invite us to ask what these streets might have become without the Bristol blitz that destroyed so much in 1940 and ’41? But also, what might they have become without a postwar reconstruction in which the car was king and where “slum” areas were cleared to make way both for roads and also for “modern” housing that went rancid within a couple of decades?

In other words, there’s a kind of hypothetical utopianism in play with these pictures. We see a functioning city, physically attractive and dynamic, with citizens bustling in smart clothes, and wonder how things might have evolved differently if we started again and re-ran the tape without the Luftwaffe destroying 80,000 buildings, without planners, and without other social changes that leave people with a sense of disappointment, of melancholia. Naturally, we wonder why we can’t we have these nice things. The answer preferred by many Facebook commenters is to blame the Council, the planners, the experts, a distant “them” who are nothing to do with “us” but who, by their decisions, have imposed their ugliness upon us. We can hardly forget, even in this Remainer city, that the distant them was the target of those who wanted to “take back control”.

While many of the photographs are of buildings and infrastructure, some are of people, or include people. A surprisingly common scene has a group of children in a carless street. Although Bristol was not a completely white city in the pre-war era, it is fair to say that nearly all of those depicted are white and often they shown in streets where the population today would include a lot of black or South Asian faces. The utopian re-foundation, the hypothetical re-running of the tape, seems to include, in the minds of many commenters, the thought that of these white communities being rolled forward in the imagined preserved or reconstructed streets. To be fair, the moderators are now generally on the case, so that overtly racist comments are deleted or perhaps never made. Occasionally, though, a not-too-subtly coded remark makes it though, perhaps opining that St Pauls was a nice area “before multiculturalism”.

Pictures of the Colston statue, famously chucked in the harbour last year, also lead to fierce back-and-forth, with threads quickly closed. In these old photographs of his statue, the slave trader appears as the city’s benefactor, looking out over the all-white crowds who are presumably grateful for the bounty he bequeathed them. The details of how he and they got wealthy being by then a little-discussed memory, since the descendants of the victims of the slave traders were yet to appear on Bristol’s streets in any numbers to question the city’s indulgent complacency about itself and its patron. Under Colston’s eye, the homogeneous community prospers, with racial and indeed any social conflict invisibly out of frame.

Real Bristol wasn’t much like this, needless to say. In the private spaces behind the ordered exteriors, people were poor and often sick, leading shortened lives after exploitation in the tobacco factories, ironworks, docks and warehouses now reclaimed as places of culture and entertainments. Nor has Bristol been all that socially harmonious, with political riot being a local tradition going back centuries. Moreover the wider social system of which Bristol was a part is invisible in photographs that inevitably focus on the local. As a major port in the imperial metropolis, Bristol handled the materials produced by black and brown people in Britain’s colonial possessions, as it had earlier played its part in the triangular trade that transported the enslaved to the Caribbean. Here we only see the shiny surface with no clue to what lies behind the scenes or in the disant beyond.

So much as there is pleasure, then, at looking at these scenes, there’s also an implicit melancholic nostalgia that carries a conservative, indeed reactionary, charge. “We” see what we have been denied by “them” and notice the ugliness, the physical loss, and the replacement of the decently dressed and apparently disciplined white burghers by the motley betrackied population of today. Wasn’t it lovely? we find ourselves asking, perhaps especially if we are ourselves white and of advancing years. For some of us, politically committed, well read, highly educated, what we know about the world and history and our sentiment about other losses (the divorce from Europe, for example) is sufficient to break this photographic reverie. But it is easy to see that for others this postcard image of the past and its unrealized future has a stronger hold.



Dwight L. Cramer 11.11.21 at 4:39 pm

Being white, and of advancing years, I hear you loud and clear. And there are a few things that follow from it that are utterly irritating. The first is the way that melancholic nostalgia is captured by some of the most loathsome elements on the current political scene, and becomes a justification for all sorts of nastiness. The second is a corresponding tendency by other (on the whole much nicer) people to recharacterize that nostalgia as a reflection of white privilege, demonstration of insensitivity to past injustice, in short, anything but ‘innocent’. Personally, I’m more sympathetic to the latter than the former, but the American election results earlier in the month are extremely strong evidence that its political consequences are disastrous.

So, enjoy without guilt, but also without political oversensitivity, your pictures. Sometimes a photograph is just a photograph.


NickS 11.11.21 at 6:20 pm

The various moods that you’re thinking about remind me of “Does This Train Stop On Merseyside”

Ian Prowse (original): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnerV9OjTrA
I first heard it covered by Christy Moore; this is a good performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bR2z_kPFZw4&t=95s
Tour of the symbols mentioned in the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMgFvnK_Sq4


oldster 11.11.21 at 7:24 pm

A worthy follow-up to Maria’s post on contingency, adding new layers to think about.
Snapshots fit into the same nexus of ideas. We see how it was, at a single moment, and we know what became of it afterwards. But the scene in the picture is compatible with many different possible futures; nothing in the picture fixes what came next.

On second thought, there is another class of snapshots where something in the picture does fix what comes next: we see, for instance, the assassin in the crowd, already leveling his pistol at the victim, seconds before the shot was fired. We see the bombs frozen in mid-air, but sure to explode when they land. Snapshots like this have their own fascination, as tokens of at least short stretches of causal history. Perhaps theses photos do tell us about what happened shortly thereafter, but not about the longer run of events.


burritoboy 11.11.21 at 11:46 pm

Or, er, ah, while some of the nostalgia is obnoxious, Bertram either wants to ignore many others who have strong arguments that (for example, in Bristol) it actually was a distant them in fact, who, who could have rebuilt that city (and many others) by restoring more, preserving more heritage, having a stronger sense of local identity and history, pursuing a more pluralistic architectural agenda – which the inhabitants themselves generally wanted and often voiced. Instead, what was a distant ideological cabal of modernist architects and planners, while you can’t call what they did precisely criminal levels of extortion, pressured millions of people to hand them money to pursue what ended up being a short-lived fad (High Modernism in architecture only really being in vogue for less than 40 years). There were, in truth, at least some bad actors in the mix, and they richly deserve to be named and shamed. They degraded and abused hundreds of millions of people across the world, tried to ruin the careers of any architects and critics not in their club, promoted mindless trash and made shit art while attaching themselves to various money spigots.


Chris Bertram 11.12.21 at 8:37 am

“Bertram either wants to ignore …” I guess there was an OR coming. Bristol is, in fact, rather lacking in High Modernist architecture, and I applaud the citizens who, in the 70s, stopped the car-driven in-filling of the docks. The blog post wasn’t about the rights and wrongs of architectural debates but about the way we respond to these photographs.


burritoboy 11.12.21 at 5:16 pm

And a lot of the people who are responding with pleasure to these photographs aren’t being nostalgic for racial reasons, but many enjoy the old architecture or old urban planning for not just understandable reasons, but for actively good ones and that should be applauded. Sure, there’s also reactionaries taking advantage of all that for deplorable ends too, and we need to be aware of that, but that doesn’t negate the positive nature of their initial aesthetic pleasure.

As to the question of High Modernism, while no one thinks Bristol was a center of High Modernism (which is the point – that the High Modernist rebuilding of many cities postwar was of a low artistic standard), a lot of buildings in the center fit the description nicely – the Bristol Hotel, Avon House, Colston Tower, Froomsgate House / Fusion Tower, Castlemead and Greyfriars aren’t High Modernist buildings how? And none are particularly successful or even above mediocre, even on their own terms.


CP Norris 11.12.21 at 6:25 pm

I definitely see a US equivalent of this phenomenon where people post vintage photos of cities before white flight. They inevitably show white women sweeping their sidewalk or something, and the comments all say “what happened?!”


Chris Bertram 11.12.21 at 11:23 pm

@burritoboy I respond to many of the photographs with aesthetic pleasure. You really are barking up the wrong tree. And it isn’t the Colston Tower any more.


Neville Morley 11.13.21 at 8:19 am

Interesting comparison with Berlin, partly because the post-war reconstruction was very different (east-west contrasts both in architectural style and chronology well before the Wall goes up; plenty of areas don’t get renovated until after 1989) and partly because the possibility of competing narratives is much clearer. I have a book called something like Berlin: damals und heute, showing views of the same locations before WWII, immediately after WWII and today, and just looking at the pictures and captions you could read it as a celebration of recovery, city rising from the ruins and authoritarian nightmare etc. – whereas the essays make it clear that the author would probably prefer the rubble to contemporary architecture. Definite tendency to read all pre-1930s architecture as a single (idealised) phenomenon, conflating different periods both culturally and politically; some very interesting intellectual gymnastics around Stalinist and Nazi architecture, especially the latter; and striking that a lot of the complaints about the changing character of neighbourhoods tend to focus on the contemporary gentrification of places like Mitte and Neukölln, ruined buildings full of punk squatters and radical artists being renovated and bought up by art galleries and lawyers conflated with old working-class white Berliners and immigrants being squeezed out by rising rents. Nostalgia for Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin competes with nostalgia for immediate post-Wende Berlin.


Tim Worstall 11.13.21 at 12:00 pm

Given that I’m Bathonian I’m obviously biased about Bristol. But I’ve long taken it as a prime example of why we should all have more Jane Jacobs and less Robert Moses.


Alan Paxton 11.14.21 at 4:09 am

How old do you think the people are who are sharing these photos and expressing nostalgia for the times they depict? They are unlikely now to be old enough to remember Bristol before the blitz (1940-41), though they may well remember the postwar period before large-scale urban redevelopment, road-building and migration from the Caribbean and South Asia. I’m in my fifties, but I feel no nostalgia for the time before the ring roads and the Commonwealth migrants came to the English midlands, because I’m too young to remember that time. The modernist and multicultural England is the only one I have ever known. I’m reminded of a comment Dmitri Grozoubinsky made recently on Twitter, in relation to Brexit, that most nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ is simply nostalgia for being young.

Or are there significant numbers of younger people attracted to that late imperial era, as an idealised past experienced through film, TV, books, comics and so on? There is certainly a lot of interest in the second world war among many younger English people, especially men. Do they pine for steam trains and all-white inner cities, too? And, if not, are the elderly nostalgic people experiencing grief not only at the loss of the imperial British world of their childhood, but also at the impending loss of that sense of loss, if it is not shared by subsequent generations? I sense something of this desperation among the Brexiters, a belief that if we don’t bring back the imperial measures and the immigration controls soon and hard the essence of England and Britain will be lost for good, because younger people won’t even know what they’ve lost.


Stephen 11.14.21 at 9:13 pm

I find myself in general agreement withCB.

But for Dwight L Cramer: you write of ” nostalgia as a reflection of white privilege, demonstration of insensitivity to past injustice”.

I suspect from your name that you are an American, with not the slightest idea what the destructive Nazi blitz on Bristol and other UK cities involved. Not obvious where white privilege comes into that.

Hint: if anything like that had happened in WW2 to your nearest US city we would never have heard the last of it.

If you are talking of “insensitivity to past injustice”, do you think that the bombing of Bristol (etc, etc) was not an injustice? And are you sensitive to it?


Dave 11.15.21 at 3:32 am

I have a 5 year old and one of his favorite movies is Disney’s Coco. Action is divided between the “living world,” a small Mexican town, and the “spirit world,” where the dead live. The spirit world is a modernist utopia. Nothing but skyscrapers, mass transit, bustling depots, crowded nightlife, and bohemian districts. It’s an almost utterly foreclosed utopia, and it leaves me envying the dead.


Neville Morley 11.15.21 at 8:27 am

But clearly a utopia that depends on quasi-colonial extraction of its energy from the world of the living, and that ruthlessly discards members of the community who no longer contribute to this process (e.g. Hector).


Matt 11.15.21 at 10:02 am

It’s funny how nostalgia works. I watch this, for example, and it sort of tears me up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuK6EM3JEfU (and not just for the vision of Brezhnev in the banya at about 1:30 – be ready to shied your eyes from that.) But – it’s not my nostalgia at all, really, and not even exactly that of my wife. It’s appropriate that most of this is focused around 1980, around the time when things start to head down-hill, though most don’t know it yet. She was born in ’81, and so it’s not until around the 4 minute mark until her reality really starts to show up. And still, despite all I know, it’s hard not to feel that something was lost. Maybe it’s just the great music. And still…


Dave 11.15.21 at 9:24 pm

@Neville Morley LOL the energy extracted is a harmless and endlessly renewable resource! Fair trade, I’d say.


valuethinker 11.16.21 at 3:45 pm

Stephen at no 12

My great uncle took the first operational squadron of Lancaster bombers over Germany. Was eventually fired by Arthur “Bomber” Harris for arguing he was losing more men on missions than they were taking German lives.

We gave, as good as we got. Or 10-fold, if you look at the destruction & death the RAF and the 8th AAF rained down upon Germany. The Hamburg or Dresden firestorms killed within the range of as many as died in the entire Blitz against Britain in the winter of 1940-41.

They bombed the “Baedecker” targets – Oxford, Cambridge, Bath etc. We repeated the favour in the early months of 1945, when we knew that we would win. Wurzburg. Pforzheim, Freiburg. Cultural targets assessed to be of limited or no military value. To break the enemy will to resist – as their strategy had signally failed to do when applied to our own countries.

We can take a (correct) view for historical justice. That “the good guys” won WW2 (except the Soviet Union did far and away the lion’s share of the fighting for the Allied cause and took 50x the casualties (excepting Republic of China, ofc)). So the good guys + one of the 20th century’s greatest monsters (Stalin) beat one of the others.

But let’s not claim that, somehow, a nostalgic view of the past is justified because we happened to be on the right side of history (the population of West Bengal, 3m dead from starvation, might take a different view).

Or that Bristol was the only beautiful medieval European city that died in pursuit of a flawed notion of the power of military airpower to win wars.

(Read Richard Overy, btw: the bombing of Bristol was a direct attack on the port, a focus of the Blitz– it had an economic and strategic logic. By contrast, the RAF’s campaign against Germany was predicated on a strategy of killing enough German civilians, to break the German will to resist).


valuethinker 11.16.21 at 3:51 pm

I’m reminded of a comment Dmitri Grozoubinsky made recently on Twitter, in relation to Brexit, that most nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ is simply nostalgia for being young.

Alan at number 11.

That’s the nub of it. The good old days never were. Several thousand people died in “the Great Smoke” of 1952 in London–air pollution. Britain was a socially divided country, impoverished by war. Huge armed forces maintaining a tottering empire overseas.

We just remember the bits we want to remember. We remember our youth. We forget the bits that were almost too hard to bear

Joseph Conrad had a short story about this.


It is noticeable that people who served and fought in WW2, like my aunt who was a WREN, who lost boyfriends in fiery plane crashes or died in torpedoed ships — were noticeably less Brexity than those whose memories stemmed from the immediate postwar period.

If you were over 80, say, you tended to believe that we had fought the (second) “War to end all wars” and that Europe must never again be torn apart like that. And that the EU was an important, maybe the most important, structure in preserving that peace.

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